20VC 8VC’s Joe Lonsdale on How To Foster Contrarian Thinking Within Venture Partnerships, Why The Best VCs Are Company Builders & Why It Is Not Possible To Build MultiBillion Dollar Companies and Have Worklife Balance

Summary Notes


In this episode of "20 Minutes VC," host Harry Stebbings interviews Joe Lonsdale, a prolific investor and entrepreneur, and general partner at 8VC. Lonsdale's remarkable achievements include co-founding Palantir and Addepar, and his investments span successful companies like Oculus and Wish. He emphasizes the importance of building companies, noting that top VCs often have experience as founders themselves. Lonsdale discusses the challenges of market timing, the value of understanding historical forces in investing, and the role of contrarian thinking in venture capital. Additionally, he touches on the potential for venture capital to be more inclusive and the need for cities to evolve to support economic growth. The conversation also covers the significance of cash runway for startups, the importance of obsessively pursuing a vision while remaining pragmatic, and the delicate balance of managing email communication.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Joe Lonsdale and 20VC Podcast

  • Harry Stebbings introduces Joe Lonsdale as an efficient and productive guest.
  • Joe Lonsdale is a general partner at 8VC with a history of investing in notable companies.
  • He is the youngest member of the Forbes 100 Midas list in 2016 and 2017.
  • Joe co-founded Palantir and serves as chairman at Addepar, with other ventures including Affinity, Anduin, and Esper.
  • Acknowledgements to Kimmy and Drew at 8VC for question suggestions.
  • Promotions for Hello Sign, Pendo, and Point card are mentioned.

"And if you'd like to submit guests or questions for the show, you can on Instagram at htebbings1996 with two B's." "Joe Lonsdale, general partner at eight VC." "Joe was the youngest member of the Forbes 100 Midas list." "Joe cofounded Palantir, one of the world's most impactful multibillion-dollar software companies."

The quotes introduce Joe Lonsdale, his achievements, and his role at 8VC, establishing his credentials as a successful entrepreneur and investor.

Joe Lonsdale's Entry into Venture Capital

  • Joe Lonsdale shares his journey from being an investor and entrepreneur at PayPal to founding 8VC.
  • He was involved with Peter Thiel's family office and met Facebook founders during that period.
  • After building Palantir and advising and investing in startups, mentors encouraged him to raise a fund.

"I started off both as an investor and as an entrepreneur early in my career." "I was at PayPal, then I was at Peter Thiel's family office." "Joe, you're basically already running a fund, but you don't have money and you don't have very many people helping you. You should go raise a fund."

The quotes detail Joe's early career, his connection with notable figures like Peter Thiel, and the advice from mentors that led him to establish 8VC.

History and Philosophy's Influence on Investing and Entrepreneurship

  • Joe discusses how studying history and philosophy influences his investment and entrepreneurial strategies.
  • He references "The Shield of Achilles" by Philip Bobbitt, which connects forms of government to the evolution of warfare.
  • Joe draws parallels between historical forces shaping governments and the forces shaping technology and industries.

"A lot of what you see in history is you see these processes of how the world evolves." "The frameworks you use for understanding history are very analogous to the frameworks you can use to understanding conceptually how the technology world and how industries are evolving as well."

The quotes illustrate Joe's approach to investing, where understanding historical processes helps him conceptualize the evolution of technology and industries.

Market Timing in Investment

  • Joe reflects on the difficulty of market timing and shares his experiences avoiding overpriced investments.
  • He mentions the influence of later-stage capital firms on investment decisions.
  • Joe emphasizes the importance of using judgment to navigate popular markets and maintain high returns.

"Market timing is obviously very hard." "We avoided a lot of it. Our IRR targets are to get above 30% IRR." "It's not my job to be trying to win that series B anymore. That's too expensive for what we do."

The quotes explain Joe's cautious approach to market timing and his strategic decision-making to achieve targeted investment returns.

The Impact of Later-Stage Capital Influx

  • Joe agrees with Bill Gurley on the challenge of later-stage capital influx.
  • He discusses the need for a unique advantage or insight to compete in later-stage investments.
  • The influx of capital requires a shift in focus for venture capitalists.

"The influx of later stage capital changes what you have to focus on and how you have to do things." "For series B's and C's and D's, you have to have some really special, unfair insider advantage."

Joe concurs with Gurley's view on the impact of later-stage capital and highlights the need for distinctive strategies to succeed in this environment.

Builder Mentality in Venture Capital

  • Joe emphasizes the importance of a builder mentality for venture capitalists.
  • He notes that successful investors often have experience building companies.
  • Joe argues that this experience provides insights into company operations and industry evolution.

"The biggest thing, if you see, and there's always exceptions to every rule, but the vast majority of most famous investors and top investors who've done really well in our space, especially in our generation, are people who've built the really big companies." "There's a huge advantage to that. So that's just really key."

The quotes stress the value of a builder mentality for venture capitalists, linking it to the success of prominent investors who have founded significant companies.

Key Theme: E-commerce Shipping and Logistics Challenges

  • Non-Amazon e-commerce players face challenges in shipping, often covering longer distances and taking more time than Amazon.
  • The idea of creating a virtual warehouse network to optimize shipping for non-Amazon players.
  • The benefits of network effects in logistics when the system is optimized.
  • The strategic decision to back a former Amazon expert in logistics during his Series A funding round.
  • The advantage of having a team culture focused on building and understanding the market, leading to better deal flow and respect from other entrepreneurs.

"Well, yes, it's three to five days, but it's 1000 miles away. So the Amazon stuff's 50 miles away. Non Amazon stuff is in sometimes over five days too, but non Amazon stuff is 1000 miles away."

This quote highlights the disparity between Amazon's efficient, localized shipping network and the longer distances non-Amazon players must cover, which can lead to longer shipping times.

"So we obviously, let's build a virtual warehouse network. Let's figure out how this works with all the carrier to optimize it."

Here, Joe Lonsdale suggests a solution to the logistics challenge by proposing the creation of a virtual warehouse network to improve efficiency for non-Amazon e-commerce players.

Key Theme: Incubation and Investment Strategy

  • The venture firm allocates a portion of capital to incubation, which is considered a high Internal Rate of Return (IRR) area.
  • The firm operates with a generalist approach but has team members who specialize deeply in certain functional areas.
  • The five strongest areas for the team are government tech, fintech, logistics, healthcare IT, and bio.
  • The firm holds regular meetings to discuss building and investment opportunities, integrating these discussions into the learning process.
  • Joe Lonsdale has the final decision on build projects, which minimizes internal politics.

"So probably on the order of probably only like a fifth of our capital will go towards it this time, give or take."

Joe Lonsdale indicates that around 20% of the firm's capital is dedicated to the incubator model, reflecting a significant but not dominant portion of their investment strategy.

"And I ultimately have the final decision if we go ahead with build projects or not."

This quote clarifies Joe Lonsdale's role in the decision-making process for build projects, emphasizing his authority and the streamlined process within the firm.

Key Theme: Building as a Core Aspect of Firm Culture

  • The firm's culture is inherently that of builders, which is seen as a significant advantage.
  • The build program allows the firm to retain critical talent within portfolio companies by offering them opportunities to build new ventures within the firm.
  • Building is intertwined with the firm's identity and is leveraged to support both deal sourcing and portfolio company success.

"Well, for us, a part of our DNA is that we are builders."

Joe Lonsdale explains that the firm's identity as builders is a fundamental aspect of their strategy and provides them with unique advantages in the venture capital space.

Key Theme: Contrarian Thinking in Venture Capital

  • The firm values non-consensus thinkers who may not align with politically correct norms.
  • Writing and publishing theses, both internally and externally, is a practice used to foster contrarian thinking.
  • Contrarian thinking involves questioning popular trends and movements, which can lead to significant breakthroughs when correct.

"One of my rules is if McKinsey could have written this, that might be B or B plus work, it's not good enough for ABC."

Joe Lonsdale uses this quote to express the firm's standard for unique and contrarian ideas, suggesting that they aim for insights and strategies that mainstream consulting firms like McKinsey would not typically produce.

Key Theme: Decision-Making Structure

  • Joe Lonsdale is the single decision-maker for build projects but not for overall investments.
  • The investment committee operates on a majority vote, with Joe having a veto power that requires a supermajority to override.
  • This structure is designed to avoid forced consensus and allow for diverse opinions.

"On the investment side, I am not the single decision maker. We have a full investment committee. We vote the only rule there is that if I vote against something, it requires, like a supermajority to overrule me."

This quote illustrates the governance structure within the firm, where Joe Lonsdale has significant influence but is not the sole decision-maker on investments, ensuring a balance of power and collective decision-making.

Key Theme: Conceptual Gaps and New Cities

  • The firm seeks to invest in areas with conceptual gaps between the current state and potential advancements enabled by new technologies.
  • Government and finance are seen as meta areas with significant influence on societal resources for healthcare and education.
  • Addressing the inefficiencies and problems in cities is considered a valuable and impactful endeavor.

"Both our investing and our entrepreneurship, we're looking for conceptual gaps in the world, right?"

Joe Lonsdale emphasizes the firm's strategy of identifying and capitalizing on areas where there is a significant difference between what is and what could be, particularly in sectors that are enabled by emerging technologies.

Key Theme: Silicon Valley's Innovation Despite High Costs

  • The discussion revolves around why Silicon Valley continues to drive innovation despite high living costs.
  • The importance of changing regulations to support innovation and reduce costs is acknowledged.
  • Silicon Valley's unique ecosystem and resources contribute to its continued dominance in the tech industry.

"This is something that a lot of us have been arguing about. I think you've probably seen the Yimme movement that I and many others support trying to change the rules."

Joe Lonsdale refers to the "Yes In My Backyard" (YIMBY) movement, which advocates for more housing development to address high living costs, as part of the effort to maintain Silicon Valley's innovation ecosystem despite challenges.

Economic and Cultural Challenges in Silicon Valley

  • The Bay Area's restrictive land use policies are creating economic and social issues.
  • Staff members, including nannies, face long commutes, impacting their family lives.
  • The high cost of living is pushing companies to establish offices elsewhere.
  • There's a risk of economic decline if policies don't change to allow for more density and affordability.

"zoned for cattle use right now. So you literally have our staff and people like nannies who have families who are driving home 2 hours each way past cattle land and not being able to put their kids to bed at night because they couldn't get home in time because they can't live where the cattle are living."

This quote highlights the absurdity of current zoning laws that prioritize cattle over housing for workers, leading to long commutes and negative impacts on family life.

Silicon Valley's Future Dominance

  • Silicon Valley's dominance in tech has decreased over the years.
  • Remote work and democratization of tools may further decentralize tech innovation.
  • Silicon Valley still has a strong ecosystem, especially in biotech, but political leadership is lacking.
  • There's a potential for Silicon Valley to regain dominance with the right policies.

"I think this is one of those dialectics where there's extreme truth on both sides."

Joe Lonsdale acknowledges the valid arguments on both sides of the debate regarding Silicon Valley's future dominance in the tech industry.

Concerns About "Woke Culture" and Free Speech

  • Silicon Valley's culture is criticized for being monolithic and intolerant of differing opinions.
  • There are concerns that a small, vocal minority is stifling rational discourse and free speech.
  • The current cultural climate may not align with the principles of a democratic society.

"It's very much scarily like 1970s China, where they just really want, basically not allow any kind of logical or rational pushback on what they're doing."

Joe Lonsdale compares the current cultural environment in Silicon Valley to that of Maoist China, suggesting an intolerance for open debate and logical discourse.

Email Communication and Responsiveness

  • Joe Lonsdale emphasizes the importance of timely email responses as part of his leadership role.
  • He balances being proactive with the necessity of being responsive to his team and partners.
  • There's an acknowledgement that this level of responsiveness may be unsustainable long-term.

"I've hired some of the most talented people in the world, I've backed some of the most talented people in the world who are doing very important things that are changing the world in positive ways. And if they're waiting on me to get something done that's unacceptable, it's my job to get back to them."

Joe Lonsdale stresses his sense of duty to respond promptly to emails, as delays could hinder the progress of talented individuals and important projects.

Talent Identification and Development

  • Spotting and nurturing talent is a key component of Joe Lonsdale's approach.
  • He believes many people have untapped potential that can be developed with the right encouragement and support.
  • Making individuals aware of their unique skills and fostering confidence are crucial in talent development.

"And so you have to find great talent. And then I think a lot more people have a lot of talent than people generally realize."

Joe Lonsdale discusses the importance of recognizing and cultivating talent, suggesting that many people have the potential to achieve greatness if properly guided.

Cash Burn and Runway Management

  • Founders are advised to be conservative with cash burn, especially in uncertain economic times.
  • A minimum of 9-12 months of runway is recommended, with less than 6 months being a critical situation.
  • The goal is to ensure survival and avoid reaching a point where only a few months of cash are left.

"I generally say nine to twelve months is yellow alert and six months is red alert."

Joe Lonsdale provides a framework for assessing financial health, indicating that having less than six months of cash is a significant risk for a company.

Impact of Cost-Cutting on Growth and Marketing

  • Companies are reassessing their spending on growth and marketing in favor of gross margins and capital efficiency.
  • There's a suggestion that some companies may have previously neglected the importance of being a "real business."

"There's probably some areas where people probably should have been thinking a little bit more on the margin, about margin, or they probably should have been a little more worried about being a real business than they were."

Joe Lonsdale reflects on the need for companies to focus more on profitability and sustainable business practices rather than solely on growth and market share.

Theme: Venture Capital and Market Realities

  • The current market environment is challenging for venture capital and startups.
  • Mature businesses are valued for their ability to generate cash flow and maintain high margins.
  • Entrepreneurs must balance aggressive growth with financial prudence.
  • Companies may need to cut costs more aggressively than they initially believe is possible.
  • Founders are often hesitant to make deep cuts but find they can operate effectively with a leaner team.

"who haven't built real mature businesses who are investing, who maybe optimize too much for revenue and don't fully understand what it takes to be like cash flowing, high margin, real business at the end of the day."

This quote highlights the importance of building mature businesses that focus on profitability and sustainability, rather than solely on revenue growth.

"And so the question is, how can you really aggressively cut burn?"

This quote reflects the necessity for startups to critically assess and reduce their burn rate to survive in a challenging economic climate.

"I think a lot of founders are a little too hesitant and blase versus what they should be in this environment."

This quote suggests that founders may be underestimating the severity of the current market conditions and the need for decisive cost-cutting measures.

Theme: Entrepreneurial Vision vs. Realism

  • Entrepreneurs must find a balance between pursuing their vision and facing the reality of market conditions.
  • Startups require an obsessive focus and a willingness to endure significant personal sacrifice.
  • Building a successful startup is likened to training for an Olympic gold medal.
  • The decision to start a company should be made with the understanding that it demands exceptional dedication and perseverance.

"But if you're confident it's there, then the right approach is just to be completely obsessed and focused and just sure you're going to win and just do whatever you can to push yourself to get there."

This quote emphasizes the level of commitment and single-minded focus required to bridge the gap between the current state and the potential future state of a business idea.

"You cannot have healthy work life balance and build a multibillion dollar company."

This quote candidly addresses the intense commitment needed to build a highly successful company, often at the expense of personal balance.

Theme: Venture Capital Inclusivity

  • The venture capital industry could benefit from greater diversity and inclusivity.
  • A wider range of backgrounds in venture capital can lead to more comprehensive economic opportunities and advancements.
  • Venture capital plays a crucial role in driving the global economy and addressing societal problems.

"I think it would be really cool if venture capital was open to a lot more types of people from a lot more backgrounds."

This quote advocates for increased diversity in venture capital, which could enhance the industry's impact on the economy and society.

Theme: Personal Growth and Leadership

  • Personal experiences, including family relationships, can shape leadership styles and business philosophies.
  • Taking genuine pleasure in the success of others can foster strong, loyal relationships and attract top talent.
  • Understanding the emotional aspects of human interaction can be beneficial in leadership and investment decisions.

"And there's no way you could fake that. If you honestly are someone who lives and enjoys the success of those around you, and you have that with your teams and with your friends, I think it's just such a powerful thing."

This quote underscores the value of authenticity in celebrating the achievements of others, which can lead to stronger, more genuine relationships in personal and professional life.

Theme: Venture Capital Operations and Scalability

  • Venture capital firms face challenges in scaling, as the quality of investments is tied to the core partners' involvement.
  • Maintaining a small, talented core team is essential for the investment process.
  • The size of the fund is kept consistent to ensure the managing partners can effectively oversee operations.

"But the core investment process needs to be tied to a core small team."

This quote reflects the belief that a venture capital firm's success is closely linked to the intimate involvement of its core team, limiting the extent to which it can scale.

Theme: Recent Investment Excitement

  • Recent investments are driven by exceptional talent, innovative approaches to large markets, and validation from respected advisors.
  • Beacon, a freight forwarding company, exemplifies these investment criteria and has attracted notable investors.

"You get the very top talent, really good approach in a good market. All the people I know and respecting this space love it, and we're able to lead around. That sounds great to me."

This quote explains the rationale behind excitement for a recent investment, highlighting the significance of team quality, market potential, and expert endorsement in the decision-making process.

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